Little Miss Sunshine, a charming yet edgy road comedy about an argumentative family traveling from Albuquerque to a child beauty pageant in Southern California, is overflowing with fine performances.
Greg Kinnear, as the titular head of the household, is a financially unsuccessful motivational speaker, a walking contradiction. His wife, as played by Toni Collette, is a down-to-earth realist who is supportive of her family but weary of all their travails. Their cherubic, slightly chubby 7-year-old daughter, marvelously portrayed by Abigail Breslin, is such a ray of happiness that solid ground can barely contain her.
Steve Carell plays Collette's suicidal gay brother (the world's second-most esteemed Proust scholar) with shrewd comic restraint. Also present are Alan Arkin as the porn-loving, drug-using grandfather and Paul Dano as the sullen, Nietzschean teenage son who at first refuses to speak to anyone and hates his stepfather (Kinnear).
But every bit as much a character — and one that sometimes gets the biggest laughs and steals the most scenes — is their somewhat ramshackle vehicle of choice, an old, bright-yellow and white Volkswagen bus. It is given to breakdowns and often needs a running start. Its horn gets stuck and gives out off-key bleating-sheep sounds at the most inopportune moments, such as when police are nearby.
"Every single horn sound had to be edited in," says the film's co-director, Jonathan Dayton.
"We shot it without any sound."
"It's like a score," adds his wife and the film's other director, Valerie Faris.
"We took wires and crossed them and worked on getting all these variations," Dayton continues. "We had about half an hour of different horn sounds that we'd select and place."
The couple is very down to earth as each recalls the filmmaking experience to a small group of reporters at the Four Season Hotel in Beverly Hills. They have a comfortable rhythm, each knowing exactly when to stop talking to let the other offer an observation or two.
They also communicate relief. This film had a hard birthing, yet was acquired by Fox Searchlight for some $10 million after its debut at this year's Sundance Film Festival. It's been doing great business since its initial release in major art-film markets three weeks ago.
Curiously, one of Dayton and Faris' clients during their 20-odd years as directors of commercials and music videos was VW. They started their career with MTV's now-landmark foray into Alternative-Rock programming, The Cutting Edge. They went on to make music videos for R.E.M., Jane's Addiction, Smashing Pumpkins, Oasis, Weezer and The Ramones, among others.
About four years ago, wanting to make their first feature film, they got attached to the Little Miss Sunshine screenplay by an un-produced writer, Michael Arndt. It seemed perfect to them — funny with satirical elements and some controversial plot twists that never succumb to the kind of mockingly ironic tone that too often passes for hip in the independent/specialty film world. Indeed, it has moments of serious drama as the characters confront their own and each others' shortcomings.
"When we first got the script, it was a little more purely a comedy," Dayton explains. "But he (Arndt) couldn't help infuse it with a humanity that comes from him, and that's what felt special to us. So our goal was to support that."
As they and their producers tried to arrange financing, the script traveled around the film industry, and actors who had heard about its buzz wanted to be in it.
"I'm happy with the tone of this movie because it feels like something original," Kinnear says, speaking separately to reporters. "I like complicated characters."
Arkin, also meeting reporters separately, explaines the lure of the film to him.
"I loved the entire script," he says. "I was just crazy about it. It was completely character-driven and totally unpredictable. You never knew where it was going."
Dayton says he and Faris wanted actors who could do comedy rather than comedians.
"They had to be able to give a truthful performance that didn't chase laughs," he says.
"A dimensional performance and not a clichéd take on the American mom or American dad, or suicidal gay scholar that we've seen so many times," Faris laughs, virtually finishing Dayton's sentence. "We wanted people who would play these roles very real. We thought it was very important for the film to be compassionate to these characters."
In return for that commitment from actors and also for their willingness to forego star salaries to help a modestly budgeted movie get made, the directors made sure the Little Miss Sunshine was about their characters.
"We had six great actors, so we didn't want to chop their performances up," Faris says. "We really did let whole takes happen. Then you see the natural rhythm that comes from great performers working together.''
For the Little Miss Sunshine's beauty pageant, young girls who actually compete in such events were hired. The film shows them with their excessive make-up and elaborate hairstyles, as well as their fake tans. Some might call it "creepy."
"It was important to us not to pass judgment on the scene, just to show it," Dayton says. "We have real pageant people wearing their own costumes, and let people draw their own conclusion."
"It's a little like body-builders," Faris interjects. "I think they look bizarre, but the body-builders think they look beautiful." ©